Motorcycles whizzing by, tuk-tuk drivers constantly hassling, the noise and dust that comes with any Capital around the world, what is there to like about Phnom Penh, and how can two Country lovers like such a frantic City?
Cambodia is a country ravaged by conflict and war. A violent history of genocide, so disturbing the older generation are trying desperately to forget their past. However, the Kingdom of Cambodia is becoming one of Asia’s leading travel destinations, and at its heart is Phnom Penh, which has its own historical story to tell.
Phnom Penh is teaming with things to do, and is so much more than the S21 Prison, Killing Fields or Royal Palace. The food, culture and of course it’s troubled past all contribute towards making Phnom Penh and Cambodia a fascinating place to visit.
We say don’t skip Phnom Penh, and let Feet Do Travel show you 25 things to do in Cambodia’s capital.
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No visit to Phnom Penh should be complete without learning more about Cambodia’s history. To understand any country and it’s people, you need to be aware of the past. A trip to S-21 Prison and the Killing Fields isn’t pleasant, but it should nevertheless be done. We were grateful to be able to retreat to our quiet hostel after this visit.
Phnom Penh hasn’t always been the capital of Cambodia. Up until 1432, Siem Reap was the capital, until Siam (Thailand) invaded the country and it was moved. Phnom Penh doesn’t actually enter any historical records until after it became the Khmer Capital, and back then it was known as Chaktomuk – the “Four Faces”.
Phnom Penh is named after Lady Penh and means “Penh’s Hill” or “the Hill of Lady Penh”. Legend says that Old Lady Penh found a floating Koki Tree in Lake Tonle, and upon fishing it out, found one statue of Vishnu, and four of Buddha.
Penh raised a small hill on the bank of a River and crowned it with a shrine, now known as Wat Phnom. The area surrounding the shrine was then referred to as Phnom Penh, to honour the lady who created it.
Cambodia’s political history is complex. Since receiving independence from the French in November 1953, the years that followed were to be their worst nightmare, and the bloodiest in Cambodian history. The legacy of 50 years of suffering is evident in every single Cambodian. Every man, woman and child has been affected in some way.
From November 1955 until April 1975, Cambodia was involved in the Vietnam War of which between 275,000 - 310,000 people died. Resulting from this war are millions of hidden landmines still scattered throughout the entire country.
On 1 April 1975, the newly-formed Democratic Kampuchea controlled by the Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot (pictured) marched into Phnom Penh. This resulted in four years of one of the worst genocides the world has known which wiped out a quarter of its population.
Over three million people were killed under Pol Pot’s orders between 1975 – 1979. Following this genocidal regime was wide-spread poverty, an education and hospital system had to be rebuilt, children were left orphaned, millions had been tortured and starved, 1 in 4 family members had been murdered, and millions more hidden landmines continued to explode.
After the regime fell, the Khmer Rouge still held power over Cambodia, and peace wasn’t restored until 1993. The country became a Sovereign State, and is now known as the Kingdom of Cambodia. This war-torn Country was able to put decades of political confusion and misery behind them, and people started rebuilding their shattered lives.
There are still ongoing battles with landmines, poverty, child exploitation including the thriving Virgin Trade, post-traumatic stress and depression, but tourism is helping to build the country. This in itself is a double edged sword; whilst your heart bleeds in sympathy for landmine victims and begging children, your head will curse the tuk-tuk touts desperate to make a living.
If you want to be a responsible tourist, help the future of Cambodia and its people, please follow this advice:
Things to Do in Phnom Penh
1. Visit Wat Phnom – The naming of Phnom Penh
Location: Preah Sisowath Quay, Sangkat Chaktomuk,
A Buddhist Temple built in 1372, Wat Phnom is built on the only “hill” in Phnom Penh, it’s worth a visit for the historical significance to the City.
You won’t need long here if you are just visiting the monument, but try to spend a few extra minutes to enjoy the park.
Visiting Phnom Penh during Khmer New Year? The area surrounding the Wat is filled with music, street food, stalls, picnics and people. The perfect place to be to immerse yourself in local culture at a special time of year.
Location: Intersection of Norodom Boulevard and Sihanouk Boulevard
Built in 1958 to celebrate Cambodia’s independence from France, this monument sits in the middle of a roundabout surrounded by fountains. Its 20 metres high, built in the shape of a lotus in Angkorian style, and also serves as a cenotaph to Cambodians who died for their country.
At night it is lit up with blue, red and white lights which are the colours of Cambodia’s flag.
Location: Street 93 – Boeung Lake area (once you reach the mosque, veer left and you will see some art)
Street Art in Phnom Penh is raw, and there definitely isn’t what I would call a Street Art Scene. However, the murals around Street 93 do make buildings more colourful. This is a residential area, just ordinary people living next to street art. Washing is hung out to dry covering pretty pieces, and tuk tuks parked obscuring others. But that is life here in Phnom Penh.
Location: National Blood Transfusion Centre, Inside Preah Ang Duong Hospital, Corner of Norodom and Street 114
This may seem like a strange thing to do when you’re in another country, but why not give something back to a place you are visiting? Cambodia has a critical shortage of blood, and the government are urging people to donate. It’s especially needed for women after complications during childbirth, and you could save someone’s life.
Who doesn’t want to do something simple, and be a hero to others? As I always say #NotAllHeroesWearCapes.
Location: Street 44; Opens daily: 07.30 – 17.00
This local market’s name originated in the 1980’s when the Russian expats made it popular. The stalls are inside, there are narrow corridors packed with cheap goods, and it can become quite hot. There isn’t really any haggling, and prices seem to be the same from one stall to the next.
The local food court was definitely the highlight, we ordered stir fried noodles with beansprouts, beef and egg for $1. We were the only foreigners here, it felt like a true local experience and we loved it. Our lunch was absolutely delicious!
Other local markets include Phenom Penh Night Market, open from 17.00 Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights only and Central Market open daily 07.30 – 17.00.
You can buy anything and everything here, handbags, backpacks, clothes, sunglasses, watches, wooden souvenirs, fruits, nuts and flowers.
Location: Ly Yoak Lay St. (172) Opens daily 07.30 – 11.00 then 14.00 – 17.00
Close to the Royal Palace, this is the headquarters for Cambodian Buddhism, and where the Top monk of the nation resides. Built in 1422, this is one of five original monasteries in Phnom Penh, and you have an option to be blessed by a Monk. We visited around midday before walking over to the Royal Palace, as this is a tourist attraction, we were a little hassled by tuk-tuks. If you are strolling around the area, it’s worth visiting Wat Ounalon for its significance to Buddhism in Phnom Penh.
Location: Samdach Sothearos Blvd (3); Opens daily 07.30 – 11.00 then 14.00 – 17.00
Entrance Cost: $10
Although this is one of the top things to do in Phnom Penh, we personally couldn’t bring ourselves to visit. After hearing of Cambodia’s suffering under the Khmer Rouge at the Genocide Museum and Killing Fields, it didn’t feel right visiting, and paying a high entrance price in comparison to the other historical attractions.
Admittedly you can spend a whole morning here so would get value for your money and there is plenty to marvel at and see. We did, however, want to walk around the outside, so we came at midday when it was closed, knowing it would have less tourists.
The Palace is opulent with large buildings and spectacular architecture. It’s the residential home to Cambodia’s Royal Family (His Majesty Preah Bat smdech Preah Norodom Sihanouk and Her Majesty Preah Reach Akka-Mohesey Norodom Monineath).
We were hassled non-stop by tuk-tuk touts wanting to take us on a tour of the city, all repeating the same lie we heard many times in Thailand “The Palace is closed today”, in Phnom Penh it was followed up with “let me take you to the monkey forest or the killing fields”.
Opposite the Grand Palace is Royal Palace Park which has thousands of pigeons, the odd monk in burnt orange robes, benches to sit and soak up the atmosphere, and a Golden Goose statue.
Location: No. 79 Street 136
Open: 08:45 - 14:30, 14:30 - 18:30
There are plenty of places to choose from if you want to learn to cook Khmer Cuisine, for instance Backstreet Academy is one option.
Another is at Feel Good Cafe. They are a social enterprise focusing on training, employing and empowering young Cambodians to run their own sustainable, businesses. After a year of employment, all staff become a part of their profit-sharing pool with payouts a few times a year.
You won't just be learning how to cook three authentic dishes of your choice, but you will be taken on a journey through Cambodian cuisine
The best way to culturally immerse yourself is through its arts. Backstreet Academy run various classes, working with competent but struggling backstreet craftsman. Choose from forging your own knife from a piece of recycled car metal, leather carving, Iron Pencil Sketching, Cambodian drums, learn Apsara Dance or take a Khmer cooking class .
They also run Mekong Sunset Cruises, evening Street Food Tours or take the Fear Factor Challenge and learn how to cook insects the local way.
The National Museum run nightly Traditional Dance Shows from 7pm. They last for an hour and cost $15. If you would like to have dinner and a show, Friends International cost $30.
There are many different operators offering sunset cruises varying in price. Mekong Tara Prince offer two hour cruises including a BBQ dinner, all drinks and hotel pick-up for $26.
We chose Kanika Boat as they have a range of sunset options. The cruise lasts 1 hour 20 minutes, choose between $8 for cruise only, all the way up to cruise, tapas platter and unlimited beer/wine/cocktails for $32. From 19.00, they also offer a 4-course dinner cruise for $22.
Sadly, just over an hour before the cruise started, the heavens opened and it did not stop raining. That’s just the chance you take when visiting a Country during rainy season, we will take a rain-check on this idea (apologies for the pun, it had to be done).
Note: If you want a touch of luxury, Floatation by MAAD offer floating suites for $90 per night for two people.
Location: 39B Street 95
Cost: $4 per day
Visiting Cambodia in the rain season? Go to the Cinema! The Flicks Community Movie Theatre screen various movies including the latest blockbusters, they even have popcorn! Check out their schedule and watch one film, or stay for a movie marathon! Its run by volunteers, and all profits are spent on community projects. It's a small and personal theatre seating 32 people, and they also serve sandwiches, pizza, burgers and desserts!
Open: 19.45 – 22.00
If you are passionate about a topic and wish to get on your soap box, Nerd Night will give you your seven minutes of fame! It’s a place where anyone can talk about any subject, and you will be surprised how much you can learn during this rapid-fire session. Check out their facebook page for more information.
There are plenty of options to keep fit! If you like jogging, head to the Olympics Stadium and run around the asphalt track (fyi, Cambodia has never hosted the Olympics), or check out the bouldering gym.
Location: 2 National Assembly Boulevard, Sangkat Tonle Brassac
Open: Monday – Saturday 6.00am to 8.30pm
At Prokout (meaning “fight” in Khmer, they provide training in Khmer boxing. Kun Khmer is an unarmed ancient martial art, and Cambodia’s national sport. With the focus on kickboxing, there are four types of strikes; punches, kicks, elbow and knee strikes.
They run cardio and cross fit classes throughout the week, as well as training in other fighting sports such as Muay Thai, MMA and Brazilian Jiu
Cost: Half day $8, full day $20
Phnom Penh Hikes arrange half and full day hikes every two weeks on a Sunday starting 08.00. You will walk 5-6km to different parts of the countryside and City with a professional local guide. New events are arranged via their Facebook Group.
15. Cycle through the Countryside
Cost: Half day $45, full day $89
Grasshopper arrange 25km half day Cycling tours, or 70km full day. Cycle along the Country lanes learning about rural life first hand from an experienced guide.
Eating insects – How it all begun
Cambodians started to eat insects out of necessity, and to survive the severe starvation and malnutrition during the Khmer Rouge regime. After the war they turned this into a tradition, and locals begun using marinades, garlic and various spices.
Crickets are the most nutritious, and are said to contain more protein pound-for-pound than beef, they are also easier to farm than cows and require less resources.
If you are interested in learning how to make something bleurgh into a tasty dish, take an insect cooking class for $18 at Backstreet Academy. Alternatively, just nibble on some insects from a street vendor or restaurant.
Location: 74 Oknha Ket St. (174)
Eating insects at Romdeng Restaurant gives you a feel-good factor. Run by Tree Alliance who are part of “Friends” International, they help orphaned, uneducated street children who often live in slums. All restaurant profits are invested towards training students, but they also support various social programs such as child abuse. Friends International run many projects to help the people of Cambodia in different ways – check out www.friends-international.org for more information about the problems, solutions and how you can help.
At Romdeng, as a starter you can order Tarantula in Black Pepper and Lime or Khmer Bites ($6.75). This was our first “eating insect” rodeo, so we opted for the simpler Khmer Bites. We thought we would choose a restaurant rather than a street vendor to tick off this bucket list item, in the hope it would be presented in a way that would make it more appealing.
Both of us ordered a “normal” main meal which were much more enjoyable.
Location: 126, Street 19, Preah Ang Yukanthor Street; Opens nightly 18.00 – 23.00
Cost from $18+
A fine dining experience, at Dine in the Dark choose from a 3-course menu designed by Nick Medhurst, a Michelin Starred Chef. The meals are a surprise but you can pick Khmer, International, Vegetarian or “Chef’s Monthly Selection”, they also cater for gluten free and vegans.
There are no lights inside the restaurant. All meals are served by the visually impaired staff in the dark If you want a “journey of sensory awareness”, and appreciation for the visually impaired then give this restaurant a go!
Note: No devices which emit light are permitted i.e no mobile phones, cameras or lighters.
Location: 321 Preah Sisowath Quay
The Daughters of Cambodia is a project to help and empower women to leave the growing sex trade in Phnom Penh. Sadly, Cambodia has a huge problem with human trafficking and a thriving sex trade, as many Asian men believe sex with a virgin will grant them extra health and luck.
Many of the women at this project are victims of the sex trafficking industry, and are shown they don’t have to be a part of sex tourism. They are taught they are worthy of earning money in other ways.
Grab a coffee, eat some lunch (vegetarians are well catered for), have a massage or get a manicure (women only) or just visit the gift shop for a t-shirt or souvenir.
Make a difference when you are in Phnom Penh, and support this project.
Location: Street 178; opens daily 08.30 – 20.30
Followers of Feet Do Travel will know our love for cats, so when we found the only Cat Café in Phnom Penh, we needed to visit. Chhma means cat in Khmer.
Opened 1 June 2018, we discovered that all cats were brought here from Europe, Russia, Thailand and America. This obviously means the cat café has been set up for tourists, and not for the welfare of the cats. I don’t believe there is an adoption system in place. We saw a total of 11. They had various Scottish Folds, Maine Coons, a Bengal, Persians and American Shorthair.
There were only two members of staff, one was making the drinks, the other was cleaning and providing cat food. No one was watching the cats or the visitors.
Children chased the cats around, pawing at them, picking them up to put on their laps. The cats started to recoil and walk away, some climbing high to escape being chased. The adults didn’t behave much better “go and play with the cats, we have paid for it” said one mother to her youngster. This made us sad and angry.
Cats are not toys to be played with. You pay to spend your time in their company. If they play with you or allow you to pet them, you should feel honoured. Cats’ independence is what makes them so beautiful, they are not here to perform and shouldn’t be treated that way.
Wondering what to pack for your Cambodian trip? Let us help with the essentials in our Ultimate Packing List for Worldwide Travel (tried and tested!
Location: 3 Oknha Ket St. (174)
If you are from the UK and craving a Sunday Roast, Full English Brekkie, bangers and mash or good ol’ English pie, the Pub is just like a traditional English pub.
They have a pool table, Pub Quiz every Friday at 7.30pm, HP Sauce and a Vietnam Visa Service. OK so maybe not your usual English pub.
Sunday Roast is served 2-10pm costing $10 with a free pint! All Day Full English Breakfasts are $5.25. For pie lovers, choose from Steak & Kidney/Steak & Ale/Chicken & Mushroom with mash or chips - $5.25.
We both ordered Steak & Ale, it was the best pie outside of England!
Location: Street 232, 23rd Floor, Phnom Penh Tower
Open daily 17.00 – 02.00 (Happy Hour between 17.00-19.00 with 30% off)
Cost: 2 Tiger beers with 30% discount plus 10% tax was $4.62
A trendy rooftop bar with 360 views around the City, and no dress code. The skyline views are beautiful, and when the sun has set, you can see the pretty night lights.
We grabbed a couple of cold happy hour beers, and sat looking over the sprawling city whilst listening to funky chilled music. I would definitely recommend people visit Eclipse Sky Bar for a least one drink, and I hope you get to experience a sunset!
Tip: To reach the Sky bar, take a lift to the 22nd floor and walk up the final set of stairs to the roof following the Eclipse Sky Bar sign.
Location: Street 308
A T-shaped road with small, cute themed bars, we had a chilled time in this area. Maybe it’s because we visited on a Sunday, out of season in early September, but it wasn’t busy here at all.
As you enter Street 308, choose from the Patio Bar (which feels like you are drinking on a patio), or Red Bar (the name speaks for itself – everything glows red, a bit like a booth in Amsterdam). The bars aren’t very big and when you turn right down Bassac Lane, they become even smaller.
We chose Meat and Drink. For $10 we enjoyed a cold craft ale, and a delicious meat patty burger, all with a friendly service.
Heading to Siem Reap and want to know the best sundowner spot? Check out Best Rooftop Bars in Siem Reap!
Location: Street 172, Ly Yoak Lay; Open: From 6pm, closed Tuesday (opening time on the door states 4.20, this is an “in” joke)
This small Amsterdam style bar was recommended to us. Located five minutes from our hostel, we thought we would give it a go. Some would say atmospheric, others may call it dingy, but we enjoyed the comfy leather-style sofa and laid back vibe. Retro music from the Beatles to Bowie to Portishead, people of all ages popped in for a beer, some were alone, for others you could see friendships were formed.
We sat near a man wearing a white set of ladies’ knickers, suspenders, flowered lycra top, leg warmers and white trainers. Like I said, this bar felt like Amsterdam and no one batted an eyelid. I respect bars which make everyone feel included, so I liked Dirty Old Sailors.
Learn about Cambodia’s History - A must for any visitor
Location: Street 113; Opens daily 07.00 – 11.30 then 14.00 – 17.30
Entrance Cost: $5 entrance only; $8 with audio guide, or make a donation and have your own tour guide
The Khmer Rouge forced slavery, starvation, imprisonment, torture and murder on anyone who didn’t follow him. They wanted to turn the country into a Communist State based on Maoism, Pol Pot idolised Chairman Mao. The regime ended with the invasion of the Vietnamese in 1979.
A visit to S21 Prison shows in grisly detail the horrors that took place here. With preserved blood-stained torture rooms, photographs and paintings, you will be left in no doubt how the people of Phnom Penh and Cambodia suffered. For more information regarding our visit, please read S21 and The Killing Fields - Why You Need to Visit.
Opens daily 08.00 – 17.00
Entrance Cost: $6 including audio guide
Prisoners from S21 were moved to the Killing Fields where they were “dispatched”. It’s not a large area, but the audio guide you are given is enough to fill your brain with a clear picture of the events that took place at this site.
Learning just a few words of the local Khmer language will bring a smile to locals’ faces, and make you feel part of their culture instead of just another tourist.
Hello - Susadei (soos-a-day) NB: informal
How are you/I am fine - Soksaby (soks-a-bye) NB: The same word used for both
Goodbye - Lee hi – Goodbye NB: informal
Thank you - Arkun
No - Ot The (ot-tei) – (you will need this for the persistent tuk tuk drivers!)
Som Dtoh (som-toe) / Sorry or excuse me
Prior to our visit to Phnom Penh I won’t lie, we were very concerned. Having read terrible stories of motorbikes snatching bags, we made sure we were uber-super-cautious, almost to the point of paranoia. We remained vigilante the entire time, but this didn’t stop us having a really great time in Phnom Penh.
We wore cross body-bags underneath our t-shirts, and always made sure the bag was on the inside of the pavement not facing the road. We both wore walking shorts so we could evenly distribute our mobile/cell phones and wallets around our body.
Even though we had a private room on the top floor, we still locked our valuables inside a pacsafe and attached it to the metal bed frame.
None of this dampened the amount of fun we had, because as soon as we reached our destination, we relaxed and had a fabulous time.
Fly: Phnom Penh has a good size International Airport.
Bus from Siem Reap: Giant Ibis tickets cost $16 (plus $1 booking fee), the journey takes 6 hours. There is good legroom, charging point, air-con wi-fi, plus 2 stops for toilet/lunch
A portion of the ticket sales goes towards BirdLife International, who help preserve Cambodia’s national bird, the Giant Ibis, which is critically endangered.
Giant Ibis Other routes: Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Kampot, Sihanoukville, Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam), Bangkok (Thailand)
We booked our Giant Ibis tickets online and checked all train, bus, and boat schedules in advance with 12Go Asia. They are cheap, safe and easy.
There are taxi and tuk-tuk stands, they will approach you. Prices are displayed; tuk-tuks are $7-$9, taxis $10-$15.
Getting around Phnom Penh
There is no public transport system and it’s a big City. There are three different modes of transport you can use; car taxi, rickshaw or khmer tuk-tuk. Download the Grab App for cheaper transport, or the local Pass App.
Where to stay in Phnom Penh
We stayed in SLA Boutique Hostel which is more like a hotel than a hostel, seriously the best hostel we have ever stayed in.
We had a private room with shared bathroom, but they also have dorm beds in single sex or co-ed dormitories. Beds have a large metal frame for you to hang your clothes or for us, to padlock our pacsafe.
In our room we had a safe, TV, aircon, towels can be rented for $1. Breakfast of eggs on toast was included, free water refills, plus they run daily activities such as movie nights, cooking class and one free beer every Friday. Nearby is a mini-mart, ATM, SIM card seller, plus plenty of restaurants for local and international food.
We initially booked two nights, but this hostel is so quiet and relaxed, we extended our stay.
Cost: $18 per night for a double room
- A 30 day tourist Visa (cost is $30) can be obtained on arrival at Phnom Penh and Siem Reap airports. It’s the quickest, most efficient visa application we have experienced.
Note: You may have to show an onward flight. We flew from Singapore with Jetstar. At the document check counter, we were asked to show our flight out of Cambodia. This is the first we had heard about having to provide proof of an onward journey, but thankfully we had a ticket. I am unsure if other airlines ask for this, whether the man was having a bad day, or if it’s required at border crossings by land, but I thought it’s worth a mention.
- Official currency – Cambodia uses two currencies; Cambodian Riel and US Dollars. Most prices are quoted in US$ but you can pay with a mixture of both currencies. Change will often be given the same way. Eg: A $2 taxi ride can be paid with $1 and 4,000 riel.
$4,000 riel = $1.
5,282 = £1
4,764 = Euro
- Driving – right hand side of the road.
- Tipping – Not compulsory or expected, however if tipping is your country’s custom, or you feel you had a nice tuk tuk driver, good tour guide or tasty meal, then by all means feel free to tip a $1, or tell them to keep the change.
- Data – Buy a Smart sim card for $3 which lasts for 1 month. At the airport, we saw a sign for 26G data for $6, in town we bought 4G for $5. Download the Smart App to monitor data, or dial *087*888# from your phone.
- Pass App or the Grab App are cheap and easy ways of getting around the city.
Want to be a better traveller and reduce your single use plastic? Hop over to our Travel Shop for inspiration. Refillable water bottles, reusable cutlery, bamboo straws, bamboo toothbrush, toothpaste power, shampoo bars and many more ideas.
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